Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Smiling and laughing onward

I love the movie "The Russians Are Coming!  The Russians Are Coming!"  It was written by Carl Reiner and he also appears in the film, which stars Alan Arkin.  A Russian sub is caught on a sandbar off the coast of New England, where it had no business being but was ordered by its curious captain too close to the American shore.  He wanted to catch a glimpse of the US.  He has no business there and he knows it and so does his crew.  They realize that the Americans will deal harshly with invading Russian military forces and want desperately to get the hell out.  But, the sub is stuck.  The captain sends his best and smartest men ashore to steal a powerful boat just long enough to free the sub.  This is all during the Cold War and Americans are frightened and on the alert.  So, everybody is aware of deadly danger, real or imagined or both. 

To my mind, the movie is beautifully put together and is a lovely exploration of daring, fright, faith, hope and charity.  I think of it often.  I think of a very minor character who hears the sheriff say that yes, there do seem to be Russians on the island.  That is more than enough for my man.  He immediately intuits that his life and that of all his fellow Americans is over.  He runs off, shouting, "It's all over!  We don't have a chance!  Not a chance!"  He has heard one sentence from the sheriff.  He has seen no Russians or damage or threats but the idea and his mind take over. 

I have a lot of respect for Marcus Borg, the Oregon professor of religion who writes about Christianity and its future.  In The Heart of Christianity, he says that there are certain components of living a satisfying life and one of them is faith.  Just faith, just the firm moving forward into the future while not knowing how things are going to work out.  How can we be optimistic?  We decide to be.  We can check every now and then, if we are moved to do that, and see if there is a compelling proof that it is all over and that we don't have a chance.  Lacking that proof, we can proceed about our business.  If we are presented with such a proof, we can look it over to see if it genuine, an actual proof.  If it turns out to be, we may still find a way to worm out of the deal, a way around the end, a way to go forward, smiling and laughing and full of joy.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Decisions, contradictions, and dilemmas

I did my dissertation on decision theory.  It seemed a wonderful choice.  I am interested in all forms of education.  Wouldn't it be great if we could all learn to make better decisions?  In a sense, every moment of our lives is a decision or a potential one.  Should I be doing this now?  Should I do something else?  What else?

In writing this blog, I find that I recall things, think of ideas and questions, work at expressing myself.  In other words, it is a hobby and a form of activity.  I thought that along with other things I do, I would have my time pretty well filled.  It turns out that I do and, in a sense, I was right.  But I am surprised to find that on some days, I can find myself too busy and have time on my hands in the same day.   Having both too little and too much time is a contradiction.  Contradictions are often taken to mean something has gone wrong with the thinking or planning that led to the contradiction. 

Sometimes, I feel bored with being home and I think traveling is called for.  But then, I picture flat tires, icy roads, missed flights, travel expenses and travel does not seem like such a good idea.  So, at times, I don't want to be home and I don't want to be away from home.  I guess that is a dilemma.

I have heard of Buridan's ass, the poor donkey placed equally between a hay stack and a watering trough, who died of hunger and thirst since he could not bear to go to either resource instead of the other one.

Decision theory can lay out a method for charting the courses of action open to the decider and the consequences that have given probabilities of happening along with each action.  But the whole conception is very rational and analytic, far more so than most real decision situations.  I came across an interesting possibility the other day.  The book Better than Conscious: Decision Making, the Human Mind and Implications for Institutions edited by Engel and Singer says that some researchers have evidence that proper employment of our unconscious mind improves certain decision making.  I haven't had access to the book yet but stay tuned for further details.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Two helpful books

I am enjoying two books, "How to Be Sick" by Toni Bernhard and "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error" by Kathryn Schultz

Bernhard was a law professor and dean but when she came down with an undiagnosed, chronic disease, she was confined to bed.  She had studied Buddhist techniques of thought, self-awareness and personal psychology and has found them valuable in facing her confined life.

Schultz is a writer of some success but evidently has only the one published book.  It is very well written, with both very good language and excellent organization.  I had read comments about the book's high quality and they come to mind each time I run into a gem of wording or association.

I am reading both books on a Kindle, which now sells for $139 for the least expensive model.  I learned in the book No Shelf Required the answer to a question I've had.  I had heard that some libraries are experimenting with loaning out Kindles.  Since you can download books through the atmosphere (or to a computer for transfer) to a Kindle, I wondered how the library controls its e-properties so that patrons can't download added books into the library Kindle at the library's expense.  The answer is that the library de-registers their Kindles once they are loaded with some books.  That way, further books can not be added at the library's expense.  That seems to be an excellent strategy to me and is also the answer to how I can loan a Kindle to my great-grandson and know that he will not purchase added books with it.

Bernhard is the mother of two children and is married.  She has vitality and plenty of reasons for living in as vital a way as she can manage.  She comments on the difficulty of seeing her husband interact with, and travel with, her children without being part of the excursions.  She is a thoughtful practitioner of self-awareness and self-compassion and worth reading. At some point in our lives, we may all be confined to bed with pain and limitations and without much hope of improvement or change.

Schultz moves through various sorts of beliefs and changes in what we think is correct.  Yesterday, she pointed out that once we abandon a belief as no longer right, we tend to explain our former belief by emphasizing parallel, external reasons for the belief, such as having learned it from our parents or our religion while we looked at the belief differently while believing it.  At that time, we emphasized the logical, factual, evidential rightness of the belief, not its source or concomitant reasons for adhering to it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Girls with Grandmother Faces" by Frances Weaver

A friend just told me that she was having a good time in life.  She said she was following the book "Girls with Grandmother Faces" by Frances Weaver.  Weaver was also the author of a book Lynn found inspiring years ago, "I'm Not as Old as I Used to Be".  Her statement and the book reminds me of my own reaction to older women, say, over 60.  Some of those women I know don't approve of the wrinkles on their faces nor the fat on their bodies.  But it is very clear to a male interested in the many attractions of women that they are, indeed, still girls inside.  Their body language, the enthusiasm in conversation, their tenderness - all point to very feminine souls.

I'm sure that much of my reaction to those women and anything else is related to the times I grew up in.  That is part of their charm.  The women my age behave in ways that I learned to consider appropriate.  Yet, I see in their eyes and hear in their voices grace, delicacy and liveliness that is quite attractive.  In the movie, "Chocolat" there are three older ladies, one of whom is Leslie Caron, who also starred in "American in Paris" and "Father Goose" and many other films.  I admired Caron's apparent personality years ago in those movies but I know that an older woman knows about triumph and pain, love and loss in a way that a physically ripe 25-year old can't.

I am a grandfather and even a great-grandfather.  You don't reach that state without being a young man and a middle-aged man.  As such, you have plenty of time to learn how lovely women are.  I have lots of friends who are women and they caution me about over-romanticizing the female sex.  I take the precaution seriously but I still see kindness and grace and loving generosity in grandmother faces I meet. 

Because women, like men, are shaped by the opposite sex, they naturally pay attention to all aspects of their appearance.  Being good-looking seems to me to be more valuable for a woman than a man, although I imagine it can be a burden for anyone.  Because of a lifelong focus on appearance and maybe even some sort of hard-wiring, older women seem to be very aware of the difference between their bodies and faces and those they once had.  However, since I am long past the time of mate-seeking and baby-making, the knowledge, humanity, and innate value of older women gives them the highest regard in my mind.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Trapped in armor

We watched "On a Clear Day". The middle-aged hero and his friends in a British working-class group face a crisis of identity and meaning in their lives as their ship-building jobs come to an end.  Searching for an acceptable job is humiliating and embarrassing.  They are too old and too experienced not to feel that somehow they "should" have more security, more honor, more ease, more respect than it seems they do.  Having more money would be welcomed but that is not the root of their problem.

They are tough and can withstand difficulties.  Why are they tough?  Because they are men, bred to be able to withstand pain and fear and to march into battle.  The same old trouble, however, faces them as has faced many other men today: physical toughness is not a good tool for working their situation.  As I watched the hero struggle to find self-assurance and dignity that he could accept, I thought that what he needed was improved conversational skills and improved self knowledge.  I am confident that if I had a pint with him and advised him to learn to communicate with his wife and children in a different, more open and more complete manner, he would sneer and advise me to buzz off.

That's the trouble with being invulnerable.  Protective armor can be a prison.  Life has multiple aspects and only some of them demand the sort of disconnected toughness that allows the mind and body to proceed against human enemies.  Different sorts of challenges arise for us all.  That is why some of the more complex and complete pictures of male development include poetry, ballroom dancing and calligraphy.  That is why a genuine "gentleman" knows and appreciates art and music.  Bulging muscles are great for fighting, an area where one can not only defend himself and loved ones but also look attractive to potential mates.  But the death of one's child or finding that one has a serious disease call for self understanding and actual self compassion.  The "softer" and "quieter" problems of life are much more numerous in a civilized society and are better faced with good spoken words from the heart.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Must apply good sense

Sometimes, it seems, when I am trying to lose weight, that a good rule to follow is: If the food is enjoyable and I like it, then it is bad for me and I should avoid it.  Of course, since food is a major part of life, that rule makes my life darker and darker, less and less fun.  At some point, I usually drop the rule and start wolfing cheese danish and pecan pie and anything else that has been lurking in my subconscious.

I do have to use judgment, I do have to manage myself so that I get some pleasures and some calorie omissions.  Similarly, in reading and weighing arguments and problems, such as climate worries, financial fears, political and social problems, I have to use judgment in deciding what I think, how I will live and how I will vote.  But sometimes, it seems that if an article or argument is stunning, arousing, exciting, deeply moving or something along those lines, it is probably rather slanted.  It may be very slanted, very one-sided while emphasizing the need to do this or avoid that. 

Such is my reaction to the movie "Waiting for Superman" after reading the excellent review by Diane Ravitch, "The Myth of Charter Schools".  I am not surprised that Ravitch makes some impressive points on the omissions and slants of the movie.  Whenever I hear a politician or theorist discuss the state of the nation's educational system, I expect the statement to be either worthless or slanted or both.  The writers for the movie seem to have missed several important points.  Ravitch's main criticism is that it implies that charter schools (schools that don't have to conform to the rules of that state's education department and are often operated by private, for-profit organizations).  Ravitch, a professor and well-qualified and thoughtful education researcher, points out that many charter schools show results poorer than the public schools in the same area.  To my mind, the most important point she makes is that it has been shown that WITHIN SCHOOLS, the most important factor in a child's high performance on standardized tests seems to be the child's teacher, accounting for 7.5 to 10% of the result.  BUT, BUT, BUT overall, the biggest factor anywhere, in or out of the school, is the child's socio-economic level, that is, the wealth and social class of the parents.  That factor accounts for 60% of the result.  As a former education professor myself, I say any child may get a good education in any school IF the child, the parents and the teacher work to achieve that end, regardless of standardized tests.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What a nice shade!

Most of my life I have tried to focus on what is important.  That meant pay attention to fundamentals, not glitz, not ephemerals, not surface but depth.  When I felt I was choosing between form and content, I thought "form" was unimportant air while "content" was the meat.  To some extent, that is still true.  However, I am getting more respect for aspects of form and format.  These categories may include art aspects such as color, coordination of shapes and textures. 

As I have worked with web pages, it has become clear that a page can contain many pixels or points and each of them could be a switch or a link to something else.  Our eyes and brains can only hold so much but web page design could get far more complex than it is.  Simplicity pays, as the open space of Google's home page shows, even though there is a steady and strong temptation to put a little more on a page, to tempt the user this way or that.

Font shape and size matters, too.  My friend told me years ago that this font I am using, Comic Sans, is far easier for her to read than the more common and standard
New Times Roman or Arial In Word and no doubt other programs, it is possible to set particular words flashing on and off, blinking in an attempt to attract attention.  Sometimes, color is used for a word or highlighting to surround a given word with color.  Of course, like all other moves to emphasize, these effects have to be used with a little restraint or one merely creates a jumble and a mess and nothing stands out.  When I resume my feeling that format doesn't matter, I recall the effect of using black for the letters and black for the highlighting like this: example.

I have found that my wife and many other women seem to be more strongly aware of color around them than I am.  They seem to derive more feeling or mood from color and coordination between colors than I do.  We proved to our mutual satisfaction that she not only knows the colors our rooms are painted but can select accessories such as pillows or curtains that match or contrast well while shopping, without a sample of the color at hand.  Meanwhile, I can't remember what color our flooring is or the color of our foyer.  Decades ago, we attended some research presentations that stated results that boys tended to respond to game scenes in computer games that had strong primary shades of contrasting color while girls were more interested in scenes in coordinated shades and tones in the same color family.  They weren't as drawn to high, dramatic contrast as boys.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Improving my optimistic balance

I have learned to keep an eye on myself, on what I am doing and was doing recently, on what I think and what I feel.  One of my first lessons in changing my habit of looking at the world and others but not staying consciously aware of my own part in my life and perceptions was in playing chess.  I was focusing on my plan of development, what I had done and which pieces I had still to get where I wanted them.  Of course, my opponent was getting his turns between each of mine but the plan of attack and the pieces over there were what I was concentrating on.  Suddenly, he reached across the board, made a move and said, "Check and mate!"  I suddenly remembered - oh, yeah - there is defense to think about, too.  Not being aware of my single-mindedness was not a winning strategy. 

I am interested in feeling good: physically, emotionally, all ways.  My idea is that having a good feeling about myself and my life is not contingent, and cannot be allowed to be dependent upon, my fortunes and that of the city, state, nation and world I am in.  If it is, my good feeling is unlikely to be present very often, what with violence, poverty, aging and sickness all over the place.  When I enter the robbery site with my gun drawn right while the crime is going on, I want to be alert but a little happy, not sad, not dejected.  I think I can clearly see that it is possible to watch over my emotions and my moods and steer them toward happiness. 

I suspect that the first step is the demonstration to myself that I can indeed choose how I feel and what I notice.  Maybe the second step is to accept that "It is He that hath made us and not we ourselves", that I didn't wire myself up.  I didn't intentionally make my mind more alert to danger, negative headlines emphasizing danger, gorgeous women, delicious treats, the comfort of sitting cozily instead of moving and getting outside.  So, a little acceptance is in order.  When I am seized with the occasional negative mood, I try to notice it and sit with it, respectfully and appreciatively.  It has dignity and worth and I thank it for its contribution to my life.  But with attention and respect, the back of my mind gets to work preparing for the mood's exit.

I find that the more I work at staying on a lightly positive course, the more I am able to do more of it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Help from the unconscious mind

I just finished "A Mind of Its Own: How Our Brain Distorts and Deceives" by Cordelia Fine.  It is the 2nd book on the subject I have read this year, the other being the excellent "The Hidden Brain" by S. Vedantam.   I wrote about it in this post and this one.  Fine's book is not available for Kindle but I keeping voting for it to be.

Fine is the mother of a young son and is an Australian psychologist.  Her thesis is that our brains are not impartial or all that accurate but distort things in what it considers our favor, such as emphasizing to us our achievements and excusing our failures while putting the opposite emphases on those of others.  Frequently, she likens the subconscious to a good butler: efficient, unerring in doing its job and working in our favor.  While reflecting on her statements, I remembered how long it took me to get myself to expect the trash can in a room to be where it is placed now instead of where it used to be.  The unconscious is not quick to change but does so over time with enough repetition.

She also explains that what we call our will is a part of the mind that can be fatigued.  If you purposely and successfully resist the temptation of a chocolate chip cookie, you may find it difficult not to violate some other resolve you have.  She explains that it is possible to work with the unconscious and have its efficiency assist your will.  Make several clear statements, maybe in writing, to yourself about not eating cookies or whatever you are working on.  Include what the resolve is, why it is important and worth doing, when you will invoke your resolution and any other detail you can think of.  Read the statement several times.  Before too long, you will automatically turn away from chocolate chip cookies, as though you assume they aren't for you.  Your unconscious will more or less automatically prejudice against them in favor of abstention.

Her writing makes me think there is a market for new aspects of the self.  Forms with appropriate blanks, email reminders, rubber bracelets ala Lance Armstrong could be sold in a little kit that assists us in exercising more, reading more, watching tv less, saving more and spending less or however we could improve ourselves.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Others are getting into the game, too

The lead article in the current Atlantic monthly is about coal power and research.  It makes clear that China is working hard at developing itself, which requires energy.  China wants to be able to manufacture automobiles for its 1.3 billion citizens.  The US has only .3 billion, or less than 1/4 of China's population, but we use about 10 times as much energy (gas, electricity, etc.) per person as the Chinese.  The Chinese and the Indians want to use more energy and live better.  The Indians number 1.2 billion.  Taken together, these two countries have more than 8 times the US population and both are striving to do things and live in ways that allow their citizens to have richer lives.  As the oil supply worldwide runs low while these giants are expanding their energy needs and goals, coal seems to be the next good source. 

The article shows how America is more complacent about its current energy production and has legal and environment obstacles to developing coal power and the necessary inventions and installations that could enable good energy production from coal.  However, China is in a hurry and needs answers sooner.  So, many American engineers and scientists are working with Chinese counterparts to solve some of the problem in wider and better power production. 

It is sobering, even alarming, to think of the impact on the total Earth environment as the energy, water and food demands of these two very large nations  (and the rest of the world, roughly as many humans as the US, China and India combined) rise in response to greater freedom, greater hope of a rich life and greater use of manufacturing, agriculture and business.  I have begun looking at The Rise of the Rest by Alice Amsden, professor of political economy at M.I.T. and Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International to better understand this subject. Clearly, when we say that a new sort of world is coming, we are right.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

All these modern gadgets

I have heard that some thinkers and inventors have adopted the slogan: automate the tools, not the work.  The idea is to make using a tool, such as a wood plane or a hammer, easier to work with instead of making a robot or a machine that creates precisely planned surfaces.  I imagine in many technical operations, the aim is to make something faster and better and cheaper by any means possible.  The slogan may apply better to popular projects rather than highly technical or professional ones.

It is still the case that doing the work, putting out the effort, may be the action that is actually sought and actually has the most value.  Posit Science says that studying a foreign language or learning a musical instrument may be good for my brain.  I doubt if buying a excellent cellphone-sized device that could "listen" to a speaker in one language and say out the same words in a different language -- I doubt if having and using such a tool would help my aging brain.

I enjoyed thinking back at the marvel of a simple spreadsheet on an Apple II computer when I first saw one in the mid 1980's.  The task of alphabetizing a list of names or sorting numerical data was done flawlessly and in a flash.  Making a list of words in alphabetical order from a list of, say, 100 names might be good for my brain but getting the work done quickly and accurately is best done by the machine. 

I suspect that people view modern technical possibilities in ways related to their age.  Some of my friends over 70 seem to sense danger and decadence in the use of modern technologies while some under 30 seem confident that newer tools are pure gifts to humankind.  In Socrates' day, writing was a new technology, suspected by some to lead to loss of memory power and honored by others as a magnificent tool.  I suspect that both the younger and the older groups are correct and as always, there are ups and downs, costs and benefits that need shifting through.

As with learning to live with fire, automobiles, telephones and electricity drawn from the wall of our house, we will over time find ways to adjust our tools and our usage of them to humanize them and integrate them into our lives where they are a benefit.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Cliffs Notes

I never got involved with Cliffs Notes but maybe I would be better educated if I had.  I hadn't given much thought to the little black and yellow covered books until I read the Collecting Children's Books blog the other day.  The author, Peter D. Sieruta, has had an idea of a long time that he should try spoofing Cliffs Notes by writing some for children's books such as Goodnight Moon.  I think the idea is hilarious and I bet some wily adults could write some cool stuff as spoof Cliffs Notes for kids' books.

Sieruta writes enough about the summaries that I got interested and looked them up on Amazon.  A real scholar might look at the Library of Congress online or some even more inclusive list of publications but I tried Amazon.  Something about the pricing made me wonder about Cliffs Notes in general so being a modern short-cutter, I Googled "Cliffs Notes" and found (aha!) their separate site. 

At the site, I was most surprised by finding that many of the sets of Notes are available free online.  Personally, I never really understood what exactly was happening in King Lear but I hear many references to the play.  I don't think I ever studied it in school but whether or not I did, I only grasped that the old King gave his kingdom over to two of his three daughters only to find that the third loved him the most.  I want you to know that I did read Christopher Moore's version of Lear, too.  At the Notes site, I read their synopsis and found it more or less agreed with my skimpy knowledge of the play.  I also felt that I never really understood Hamlet but I read Cliffs summary of that, also. 

I am confident that many good readers have had such enlightening joy from one book or another that they have been determined to force or seduce or frighten students into fully reading a book, thinking the enlightening joy would come in such cases.  I have seen many instances where only pain and shame followed so I hope anyone who wants a good shortcut can find one in Cliffs Notes (now available in podcasts on your iPhone, too).

Further thoughts from Peter on the subject of notes or movies instead of full reading from one of his later posts.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book cover art

When my great-grandson was 3 or 4, he could not read yet.  But, he was very interested in looking at the art on the box for a DVD or video cassette.  I don't think he ever asked what the movie was about.  He just looked at the art and made a decision from it as to whether he would like to watch the movie.  Seemingly, he almost never decided on something and later found that he had made a mistake. 

When Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble make emails and web pages about books, they usually go out of their way to show at least a thumbnail of the book's cover.  I realize that book jacket design is a profession.  Graphic artists apply their imagination and skills to creating just the right art for the book cover.  Maybe 100 years ago, you coudn't judge a book by its cover, but today, the jacket art often gives a potential reader a pretty good idea of the tone of the book and maybe some of the plot.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is about rare books and the trade in them.  The author relates how scams have sometimes been perpetrated by going to strong effort to create a copy of a book jacket that would have been on a first edition and putting that jacket on a much less valuable book.  The story is non-fiction and the author makes clear what a market there is in just book jackets, aside of buying and selling actual books.  The author also makes clear that if you are keeping a book until it is a valuable copy, you will do much better if you keep the jacket on it.  With a jacket, a book can be far more valuable than without one.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Getting to the Net

The whole point of cell phones is that they can detect a signal near them than can be used to connect your call to the people you are calling.  I know just about zero concerning the technology involved or the possibilities and limitations.  I had never thought of the possibility that a cell phone could connect a computer to the internet.  The first I heard about was in the last of the Millennium trilogy by Steig Larsson, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest".  I realize that getting technical information from fiction might not be the best way but it has helped me before. 

So, I stopped in the wireless section of our local Wal-Mart to get ideas from the salesclerk on cell phones.  We pay a hefty fee monthly to rent a small USB device that allows our netbook to connect to the internet even while we are in the car and moving.  We do have a GPS but we don't use it.  I got scared off by the warning on the box about components inside known to cause cancer.  It seems quite possible that my old cell phone has the same or similar components but I haven't looked into that.

The salesclerk told me about up-to-date cell phones and not just smart phones, either.  What with the equipment we already have, and the hours I spend using it, I am cautious about further immersion in computers and connections of any kind.  I am interested in saving money though and maybe, like getting rid of landline phones, I will save by having a phone that connects our machines to the internet. 

The clerk showed me a phone that she said was very popular and could connect 5 computers to the internet simultaneously.  Then, she also showed me a newer phone that had just come out. It  was a better phone but that it was not known yet.  The more popular version was in high demand.  She casually dropped the notion that whenever people get interested in a product, the strength of their desire for it rises sharply if they are told they can't have it.  Thus, the unmet demand for the better known phone.

In a similar way, tv is getting modified so that many internet activities can be performed on the television set, such as looking at web pages and downloading and viewing movies.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Are you crying?

Sometimes I cry.  Since it happens at the same time I feel some strong emotion, I figure it is a sign that several parts of my body agree that the moment is an emotional peak.  I don't know much about the actual mechanisms of the eye, brain and other parts to get crying started or stopped, I thought I would look up a bit about the subject.  I first looked up "tears" but realized that the link to crying was probably more related to what I am thinking about.

I have often felt that when I cry, I am just the same as I am before or after.  But I had heard as a boy that tears and crying were considered a sign of weakness and that, of course, "big boys don't cry".  I wanted to stand out as a big boy and was interested in being an acceptable version of a good male.  However, I never felt unmanned or hampered when I cried and I suspected that I could cry and still be tough, manly (or boy-ly), and reliable.  The link above leads to a Wikipedia article that reports a study of 300 people found men cried about once a month on average while women averaged five times a month.

Since I have never heard that big or little girls are not supposed to cry, I was surprised when, through their tears, they apologized for crying.  Why?

Now, I don't see any reason for anyone to apologize for crying.  It seems to be simply a physical marker of a highly emotional state. As pointed out in the text linked above, crying usually blurs one's vision.  It may make one's nose run or distort one's enunciation so that understanding anything said while crying is hard for others.  So, it might be necessary to stop talking while one cries and that can interfere with an agenda. 

Those with English or English-American background are often associated with little or no emotional displays.  I have that sort of background but I advocate crying without shame when the need arises.

For an Irish take on the subject, see:  http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/boys-dont-cry-1449222.html

Monday, November 15, 2010

Movie "Waiting for Superman"

A small group from the School of Education went out of our way to see the film Waiting for Superman.  It is an attempt to stir people on the subject of American education. 

(I try with that last sentence to convey the general area of the documentary as dispassionately as possible.  In our hyper-communicative, hyper-pushy, hyper-commercial world, most ideas, programs and issues are presented in the most dramatic way the creators think will be accepted, in order to gather attention, energy and concern.)

To my mind, the film does a pretty good job.  It clearly raises issues that matter, such as the effect of good, engaged, savvy teachers and the effect of the opposite sorts of teachers.  It focuses on a small group of students, mostly members of a minority, hoping to be accepted into charter schools that have a reputation for good education.  The schools have more applicants than can be accommodated and much is made of the feelings of disappointment and despair the students and their devoted parents feel when a random draw does not allow them to attend.  The students and schools are widely dispersed around the country but all are in large cities. 

The film is a good, overall introduction to aspects of current K-12 education in the US.  It does tend to imply that everyone who goes to college will have a good life afterward and that without college, an American can't have a good life.  I know there are other sorts of opportunities for those who finish high school but don't want or can't afford college, even though the numbers in general support the notion that some type of post-high school education is very important.  In fact, some educators have stressed that the schools and American society in general implies too much that college is as essential as oxygen.

The film also tends to rely very heavily on mass testing data for its conclusions.  I am not sure what else they might have used, but I know, and most educators know, that test results are only a crude measure.

The movie is worth seeing.  I see that the book is doing very well on the NY Times Best Seller List.  Here is a review from the Harvard Crimson.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Persistence vs. acceptance

I am listening to "The Year that Changed the World" by Michael Mayer about the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.  I feel I understand the group of angry but confused leaders of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany as Gorbachev changes course for his country and the related states.   Imagine being a middle-aged, hard-working executive in the Communist administration of these countries, feeling that you are doing a good job accepting orders and adhering to policy decisions and handling papers.  True, things are going down hill steadily in terms of the comfort of your people but you quite literally can do nothing about most of the vexing problems besetting your country. 

You hear disturbing news.  Especially, if you are part of the government of East Germany, the news that Hungary, a popular destination for your own citizens for summer vacations, has announced that it can no longer afford to spend so much on keeping its border with Austria, a Western country, closed.  Horrors!  It simply removed the barriers and checkpoints and said anyone who wishes can cross in either direction.  The East German ('GDR' - German Democratic Republic) government had determined to stop the hemorrhaging stream of citizens leaking into the West.  Many of its citizens were killed by border guards while trying to cross the border out of the country.  Now, there was no problem for East Germans to travel to Hungary and cross out of the Communist world.

Several times before, when events took a 'wrong' turn, Moscow had intervened with its troops.  Surely, things would continue as they had.  But wait, Gorby is doing nothing.  For over 50 years, things had been settled and controlled.  Surely, they would remain that way.  They didn't, though.

Persistence and tenacity definitely pay off.  If, at first, you don't succeed, try and try again.  On the other hand, as Mother Theresa advised, accept.  Flex with life and be part of its changes.  Sometimes, it is very hard to know which way to go.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lower your stress

Comedian Loretta Laroche has some neat ideas.  Most of the ones I remember have to do with lowering stress and enjoying life more.

She explains how to liven up your life at the workplace.  Simple.  Buy a tiara from a children's toy section and wear it to work.  Enter the workplace, shouting "Ta Da!"  That is, make a grand entrance, even if you don't consider yourself grand.

If, at any time, you get bawled out, stand politely and listen to the scolding but surreptitiously stand on only one foot during the tirade.  Try to stay balanced on the one foot.  It will give you something to think about.

She has a revelation that might help you put things in perspective.  You know how you enter the store and are pleased to find no lines at the cash registers, only to discover by the time you get your shopping done, every register has a long line?  Here's why: you are so popular and such a figure of public interest that the manager stays on the alert for when you enter.  When you are spotted, a signal goes out: Now!  They all immediately rush to the registers to get a look at you.  No use getting upset.  It is just the way people behave in relation to you personally.  Keep that in mind the next time you find yourself in a sudden crowd.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Finding out what is happening

I use several of Google's services and I search with it frequently.  So, the handy link on the main Google page to "News" is right there and I use it.  I think Google gets its news from the web sites of many newspapers and news services.  They use some sort of formula for deciding what topics are getting attention and the result is a page of news gathered from all over the world. 

It is not perfect by any means.  Besides possibly contributing to the undermining of traditional news organizations and sources, many of which are quite valuable, the mechanical nature of the gathering and its focus more or less guarantee that popular topics get more attention.  Since my interests are not part of a hot demographic group, that is, aging men like me do not tend to spend much money, what is of interest to me is usually not a hot popular topic. 

Nothing makes this clearer to me than the number of articles in Google news that relate to cell phones.  I am a short, small man and I have short small pockets.  So, an iPhone is impractical unless I want to wear a holster for it.  I don't.  I have enough stuff in my pockets already.  Besides, I live in a non-metro area, in the less-populated part of a state which barely makes the top 20 in population.  So, my location is not a hot demographic, either.  Geographic coverage is important to me.  A cell phone is not usable without a signal.

Like many other people, I am not always that sure of what my interests are.  To some extent, I can remember what topics I looked at yesterday and what interested me 5 years ago.  Some of those would be good to refresh, to follow.  But what else is going on?

Recently, I heard a mention or two of the TED conferences.  The letters stand for "technology, education and design".  All important topics and all of interest to me.  The Posit Science  blog (makers of brain training software we have used and enjoyed) has an article on it about the body's '2nd brain', the intelligence-gathering cells in our gut.  I have had gut problems for years and I respect its importance.  The 2nd brain talk is by Heribert Watzke.  I never heard of the man and wondered who and what he was.  I was lead to this list of TED speakers, their backgrounds and topics.  Looking over it, I am reminded of how much of the world I am not in touch with and never will be. 

The topics and specialties make clear to me how narrow is the range of topics I am normally exposed to.  It is a fun but impossible task to find out what is going on these days.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The meaning of a statistical process

A statistical ('stat') process is a continuous series of events that occur around an average of some kind but tend to be randomly more or less than that average by varying amounts.  If you look across the tops of a field of wheat, you will see that the plants are not all exactly the same height but that they are rather close to each other's height.  Of course, "rather close" is an subjective term.  If you were trying to get all the plants to be the same height, the variation you found might be quite annoying and depressing.  If you look at the field from a bit of a distance, the plant heights might appear to be exactly the same, making the field look like a velvet carpet, a smooth piece of felt.

The most famous statistical process MODEL produces a normal or "bell-shaped" distribution, which when graphed looks like a gentle mountain, with its peak in the center and slopes tailing off on either side from that peak.  Many people don't realize that the model is just that, a model.  A very precise mathematical formula exists, in several related forms, that creates the line seen in the various images at the link above.  An important cousin is the Poisson distribution but it does not have one characteristic, easily recognized shape.  The Poisson model does a better job at modeling relatively rare events, such as getting one or more flat tires.

If some process or set of occurrences is well-described by a statistical model, scientists may be able to estimate rather accurately how many examples of the events will occur.  Trying to estimate the number of hurricanes there will be in a given season might be done with a statistical model.

Even without statistics, finding a wheat plant that is 20 feet tall or 2 inches tall would tell us that the height of the plants might be changing.  Estimating the number of men of a given height or of girls who reach child-bearing readiness by age 10 could furnish a similar basis for concluding that men are getting taller or girls maturing earlier.  Humans are interested in reducing the uncertainty in life and statistical process modeling can help.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hands off our goal!

I was interested when I read in Chris Argyris et al.'s "Action Science" that there is evidently research that says that people are better at pressing on, overcoming obstacles to reach a goal than they are at changing the goal.

I can understand.  Most of us hear steadily about the value of hard work, about never giving up, about persistence, full commitment, and personal application.  If you are really focused on attaining your goal, you don't want to ask yourself if the goal remains worth pursuing.  Still, however painful it may be to consider modifying the goal or abandoning it, clearly a goal can become out-dated, inferior to alternative pathways, too expensive.  I realize that we can't deeply focus on attaining a goal while at the same time undermining our efforts and our motivation by questioning the plan.

Yet, the world changes.  Buggies get replaced by automobiles, books are delivered through cellphone signals, school children strike up communication with counterparts on other continents.  More demanding disasters take place.  New opportunities arise.  It just makes sense to keep some of your research staff or your philosopher-in-residence or some of your own little gray cells, maybe just on Saturday afternoons, for periodic review of goals and plans.  Maybe it is time to sell or invest or give up or double your effort.  Simply plowing ahead making better and more beautiful buggy whips while horses are being abandoned as a main means of transportation is blindness, vanity with a vengeance. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Writer's relish and lost audiences

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley was one of those books that I dipped into but didn't like very much and put aside, only to try again for no reason I can remember, and read the whole book happily.  The heroine is a 10 year old version of the famous Lizbeth Salander, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Who Played with Fire and Kicked the Hornet's Nest.  That is, she is brilliant but somewhat insensitive to other people.  After I got into the story, I enjoyed it and will probably read another of Bradley's books.  

Despite his imaginative titles and interesting writing, he does something that bugs me.  Every once in a while, he will have a killer lurking in the closet and I am afraid for the hero when the writer will launch into a detailed description of the objects on the bedroom night table or why the killer's father grew up to be such a mean drunk.  I am too direct and too mission-oriented to enjoy such a diversion.  When I am all set to intervene if the bad guy tries anything, I am not in the mood for detailed embroidery of the text.  It only takes a few such attempts to prolong the suspense when I become impatient.  Then, I simply start scanning the paragraphs to get past the silly, unsuccessful embellishment (often irritatingly colorful and extended language) looking for that killer's next move.

The first Jacques Barzun book I ever read was The House of Intellect and I have read most of his many works since.  I always thought his writing was a fine example of crisp, direct communication, although I will admit that he never worked with fiction, a plot, characterization and the other tasks of creating a good story.  C.S. Lewis was my other model writer and he did both fiction, such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Tales of Narnia) and The Screwtape Letters as well as such books as Mere Christianity.

I suspect that in today's profit-hungry, block-buster-bemused world, an author, especially a hungry, ambitious and up-and-coming one, might be tempted, or even required by the publisher or the market. to be sure the manuscript has adequate length.  Whatever the reason, I like a story that more or less sticks to the point and doesn't require earning 15 college credits before telling me what happened.  Deliver me from being trapped in words and words!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Strategic Air Command

We recently toured the Strategic Air Command museum in Ashland, Nebraska.  You may remember "SAC", the military group charged with being prepared to do whatever it could if the Russians launched a missile attack against the United States.  If you have seen the Peter Sellars film "Dr. Strangelove", you know the idea.  We had big bombs, so big we were not sure just what they will do.  They have big bombs like ours.  We didn't want to start a fight using them but we didn't want to be wiped out, either.  So, we tried to stay ready and alert.  We (and they, too, I guess) tried to arrange for "mutually assured destruction".  (Note the acronym.)  "If you start something, you will be sorry" kind of thing.

We tried to make our threat credible by having planes armed and ready and actually in the air at all times in case our side needed to retaliate for something they did.  The museum makes clear the decades of effort and great expense that went into maintaining such a ready response.  Knowing very close to zero about what we could do and what they could do and tons of relevant details, it seems to me that we can't really know if it was all worth it or not.  I imagine all sorts of experts can line up for and against the idea of what was done.

There are times when risk and mental inflexibility just do not allow us to deviate from our plans, well-conceived or not.  I am listening to The Year that Changed the World by Michael Meyer.  It is about 1989.  The Americans were not paying attention when Gorbachev made it clear that it was time for some changes, when Poland and Hungary began to take him at his word.  The Americans charged with staying alert for Russian tricks felt they were too smart to be lured into dropping their guard just because of some language so different from the previous 50 years and more as to be unbelievable.  It took a while for the new situation to be grasped (and trusted) by all.

It does seem as though the matter of dollars, rubles and expense lay behind much of the change.  A Pole was quoted as saying, "40 years of Communism and we still have no toilet paper".  When the Hungarian government decided to stop the bother and expense of patrolling their border to keep citizens from fleeing into Austria, they explained their 'outlandish' decision with the statement that all that border stuff was simply more than they could afford.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It's ok to move

As we realized that we could afford in both time and money to spend the winter somewhere else, I began to wonder if we were actually being too indulgent, too wasteful to be snow birds.  Then, I finally looked at the issue of the National Geographic about Great Migrations.  Even while looking at the article and the accompanying map, I was still uninterested.  So large herds of African wildebeest run from here to there.  So what?  Then, I turned the map over.  I was struck by the variety of animals who have a migration built into their life cycle. Eighteen sorts of animals are listed, scattered over 8 classes of birds, mammals, fish, microorganisms, crustacean, reptiles, amphibians and insects.   They have clearly been doing migrations for a long time and it they aren't green and earth-friendly, what is?

So, I conclude that traveling to warmer places for winter, where I can and do exercise more consistently and safely, is ok.

I don't look at the National Geographic very often but each time I do break it out of the plastic mailer and look through it, I am glad I did.  It is a publication that certainly opens my eyes and broadens my horizons, scientifically as well as geographically.  The organization is much more than just a magazine.  Among many other things, they are the source of the Genographic Project that got me to thinking that whether my ancestor in 9000 BC was a jerk or a king is a short-range question when we are all cousins and all ex-Africans, going back millions of years.

I did take the trouble to set the Migrations issue aside, along with the eye-opening graphic on migrations that came with it.  Today, I got an email from National Geographic reminding me that their program on Great Migrations starts today.  It says on the cover that it will be at 8 PM, with no time zone given.  In my area, it is at 7 - 9 to be rebroadcast, immediately following.  The first two episodes of out of seven in all are called "Born to Move" and "Need to Breed".

Turns out we snow birds are hip to nature, too!


Our days are flying by and I know our time is running low.  There are so many books I haven't read and friends keeping telling me about others.  Lynn is encouraging us to try to develop more flexible minds.  We have two eyes and two ears.  Instead of panicking at how much is left to be consumed and mastered before our final breath, why not learn to read two books at once, one with each eye?  Perhaps, we could learn at the same time, to listen to two different audiobooks simultaneously, one with each ear.  Doing that would give us four times the consumption/digestion of good stuff before our end!  Four times!

Lynn's library science instructor said to read book reviews to find only the better books to read.  That sounds good but I'm doubtful that it will help much.  For one thing, I would rather read something fun or valuable than reviews.  Besides, I keep finding that what turns me on is not what turns others on.  I have to find my quality stuff on my own.  My tastes are too particular, too eccentric, even.  I don't have records but my impression is that there is about a 2/3 chance that a book or movie that is popular will not be to my taste.  Along the same problem, much of what brightens my day is boring, trivial or obscure to others.  The other day, a friend wrote 
How to count with your fingers in different cultures is a plot point in the movie Inglourious Basterds. A spy blows his cover by getting it wrong.
He made his point and served it up with an explanation so neatly and cleanly that the comment seemed like poetry to my ear.  I write enough that certain writing simply brightens my day.  But so far, no system of data mining or recommendations really helps me find good stuff regularly.  I will just have to keep searching.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Baby power

I enjoy Richard Wiseman's "59 Seconds", the British psychology professor's book of succinct statements of research results with practical applications.  Well, sort of succinct and sort of practical.  I read recently his summary of research to protect a lost wallet. 

If you lose your wallet, how can you improve the chances that it will be returned to you?  One of the most powerful effects the researchers discovered is a cute baby picture right where anyone opening the wallet will see it.  It turns out that we possibly have a part of our brains that automatically registers a baby and gives us a little squirt of delight and sympathy for the child instantaneously and immediately.  Adorable elderly couples, cute puppies, happily smiling families were way less powerful images for  striking up sympathy and caring and getting the wallets returned.

The baby effect with lost wallets reminded me of Mary Gordon's Roots of Emphathy Project.  I read about her efforts to help children develop good sensitivities to others by having groups of them sit with a baby and the mother.  They listen to her tell what caring for the baby is like while seeing how the baby behaves in their presence.  The main picture on the web site shows how captivating the baby is.  The faces of older children clearly show their powerful emotions while that baby gazes at them in wonder.

Friday, November 5, 2010


It started with our high schools, then our marriage, soon our college.  50 years is a good marker and I don't intend to get all celebratory for 60 and higher numbers if they occur.  So why not celebrate a good thing, something that many don't get?

Somehow, I didn't hear about any high school reunion prior to the 50th.  We live 1000 miles from the school so it isn't a trip that happens incidentally.  I lived an hour's ride from the school as a student so I wasn't close to it during my years there.  It was all-male, and therefore of low interest at the time.  I was quite surprised at how much I remembered, and how friendly the reunion attenders were, and going to it was definitely worthwhile.  The event impressed my wife, too, since it gave her an idea of what those years and the friends there were like.  

Likewise, my chance to attend her 50th high school reunion was a chance for me to walk through the very halls of her adventures, her studies, her friendships.  It was a pleasure.

It is interesting that the earlier event, such our high school educations, took place the longest ago.  Of course, that would be true chronologically but it also means that the biggest changes have taken place in us, our lives and our friends since high school.

We married in college.  We had both dated many people before glomming onto each other as prizes, so we felt confident we had found the right partner.  I read, as always, about marriage and was warned that getting a good partner is often a big part of having a good life.  I thank the Lutheran gods for getting us together and showing us how right we were.  Also, for her forbearance in times of low funds, bad tempers, and doubts.

But now we have celebrated with our family all together for a holiday weekend in the woods, taken a leisurely trip out west, and had a terrific party sponsored by our friend.  We are happy to have those big 50's and we look forward to our college reunion, where we met each other.  I don't plan to try for any celebration of advanced degrees or tons of lucky breaks and happy achievements beyond the ones on the horizon right now.  We can see that every day is the anniversary of something wonderful.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dissolution or the next step?

I enjoyed Witold Rybczynski's "Waiting for the Weekend" and his discussion of the political, personal and technical difficulties in getting our citizens in the habit of going to work each day.  It wasn't easy to go from an agricultural life of hard work done on your own time to getting to a workplace by 9 and staying until 5.  Humans have not always had a modern industrial schedule,  I imagine many don't have one now.  

In fact, the idea of a job, of employment, seems to be a fairly recent invention limited to just industrialized countries.  I imagine shopkeepers all over the world have somewhat set and  public hours.  But when a person loses his job, the plant closes, the factory is moved to another state, then it is back to the old situation of being on your own.  You might have unemployment benefits for a while and some of them are only available if you can document that you have found some job openings and have applied to fill them.  What if there are no jobs to be found?  In the Depression, the iconic solution was to sell apples on the street corner.  

Today, we have soup kitchens, homeless shelters, food pantries .  Those who feel that the lazy grasshopper is morally deficient while the busy ant and the industrious squirrel are the models for all animals sometimes express suspicions that some people don't really try to find work.  Maybe they live on welfare, government attempts to keep people from starving to death.

But when you think about it, accepting free food instead of committing oneself to a job doing what you don't like, or what is boring or dangerous -- that might be a rational choice.  Perhaps as the world gets wealthier, there will be enough food, donated tv's and cars, blankets and housing that many people will decide to philosophically elect a simple, basic life supported by society.  Perhaps the moral pressure to make a living will dissipate and few will accept employment.  If little needs to be done for all to live, that might be the majority's choice.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Trying to be clear

I read that many Europeans have learned to count off things on their fingers by starting with the thumb.  That makes sense since it is the first digit from the side on either hand.  I always saw people around me count off items by starting from the index finger and moving along towards the little finger.

So what?  Who cares?  "Non importa", my Italian teacher would say.  I bring it up because I am interested in what is simple and what isn't.  What communicates easily and what causes confusion.  The warning about counting said that starting with the index finger sometimes confuses a person used to saying "one" while tapping or extending the thumb.  

I sometimes found that an overly simple question sparked an internal red flag in a student.  If I hold up my hand and ask,"What is this?", I would not be surprised if a student hesitates to answer.  He knows I know it is a hand and that he knows it is a hand.  Maybe it is a trick question.  Maybe the 'this' does not refer to the hand.   Maybe the gesture?  The neurological impulse sailing through my muscles that allowed me to lift my hand?  

Speaking or writing directions or specifications is not all that simple, especially with people of multiple generations, cultures, sensory capacities.  Each attempt at communication is a gamble.  Directions can be too detailed or not detailed enough.  Trying to get the best level of detail reminds me of the problem of "zoom".  It took humans a very long time to realize the many levels of reality that are too microscopic to see and the many levels that are too big to see.  Maps with too much detail are confusing but those with too little are not helpful. Similarly, if I try to explain how to cook a fried egg by describing in detail which door of the kitchen is the best way to the stove, I won't be helpful.  John Seely BrownLucy SuchmanRichard Saul Wurman and many others more recently involved work at trying to formulate strategies and maybe even rules or machines for clear communication of just the right complexity and focus to maximize learning rapidly and permanently. 

In today's multicultural, multigenerational world, one in which various personalities and human strengths, weaknesses and learning differences are more recognized and understood all the time, where we have less time to ponder and more distractions, getting information across smoothly and pleasantly is no easy task.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Musical power

We stumbled into "Life or Something Like It" last night.  In one scene, a reporter is interviewing the leader of some striking employees.  She is tired of being objective and, feeling sympathy with their cause, begins leading them in a chant.  It has a nice rhythm and somebody starts some music playing that gets the whole group dancing and shouting in rhythm.  Before long, the riot police, standing in a grim line facing the strikers, started getting into it, too.  First, a little toe tapping and a little nodding.  Before long, the participation grew to be full bore and the opposing forces united.

You can steel yourself against infection by a rhythm.  You can build up an internal impression that accepting a rhythm is primitive or wrong.  You can even go so far as to decide it is criminal or sacreligious.  But it is also possible to allow a rhythm your opponents are supplying to be part of you for a while.

Amandla! is the story of similar powers of music during the struggle in South Africa against white rule and apartheid. 

Thoreau got my attention in Walden (1845) when he advised that music can be intoxicating.  The pied piper led animals and children astray with music. 

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin and Musicophilia by Oliver Sachs are two books on the power of music that I mean to get around to sometime.

My wife's practicing of basic piano often puts a tune in my head, even when I am not paying attention.  I have gotten so that if some music is playing in my head that I can't identify, I will get her to review what she has recently been playing.  Sure enough, my brain has picked up one of her tunes.  Right now, it is the minuet from Mozart's Don Giovanni (a.k.a. Don Juan).  Here is just 12 seconds of it but it can grab you.

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